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Reflections on “For Colored Girls”

* SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film you may not want to read any further. There are a few spoilers.

Opening night I sat in a packed theater of folks who I’m certain had never heard of Ntozake Shange to see Tyler Perry’s adaptation of the 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.  Having read the literary masterpiece, I knew it would be hard to translate on screen, but went in with an open mind. I exited the theater pleasantly surprised.

One of the two major differences between the original and the film was: revealing the women, who in the book and later play, were only known by their colors. The other difference was Perry’s creation of an overlapping relationship among all of the women. In Shange’s choreopoem there were seven women identified as “lady in red,” “lady in orange,” “lady in blue,” etcetera. Perry added two additional women played by Whoopi Goldberg, the religious fanatic, and Tessa Thompson the 17-year old who suffered through an illegal abortion.  Perry’s storyline is understandable given he wouldn’t have been able to create an entire movie based around women entering and exiting randomly reciting powerful poems while dancing, which is exactly how Shange’s choreopoem is written, hence the reason some believe it is best as a theatrical piece for the stage only.

However, Perry was smart in that he kept a great deal of Shange’s monologues, which at times correlated well with his own writing. But my concern was his target audience, many who during the poems spoke loudly about the monologues “sounding like poetry” and inquired about what was going on, most likely didn’t know the difference between Perry’s writing and hers.

In the opening scene Anika Noni Rose is dancing as Shange’s poetic words  are heard over the instrumentation. Set in Harlem, we learn all of the women except Janet Jackson and Anika Noni Rose live in the same building, but they are not friends. (Women of Brewster’s Place anyone?) The plot continues by portraying each of the women’s tragic lives separately, but somehow ends up gradually interconnected by the end of the film.

Loretta Devine nailed her role- a nurse in love with a man not worthy of her love.  Phylicia Rashad was phenomenal as the nosy landlord of the building offering her unwarranted wisdom to the younger women. One of the most touching scenes of the film was between Phylicia Rashad and Kimberly Elise after Kimberly Elise suffered a tragedy no one should ever have to endure. Anika Noni Rose gave a strong performance as the free spirited dance teacher whose life was forever changed in a matter of moments. Kerry Washington’s performance didn’t do much for me. She played the social worker dealing with an issue in her marriage to Hill Harper.  Tessa Thompson does an amazing job in her break out role as the youngest of the cast. Even Macy Gray was solid in her seven minute appearance as the back alley abortion “doctor.” Lastly, Janet Jackson fell short as she always does. It seems as if Janet plays the same character in each of her movies with a different name. Her stoic, flat, one -dimensional high-powered Editor-in-Chief act was unconvincing. When she learned she contracted HIV from her downlow husband, I was not moved in the least bit. What had the potential to be a powerful scene laced with Shange’s poetry was instead painful to watch because of her non-acting abilities.

The men- Michael Ealy, Hill Harper, Omari Hardwick, Richard Lawson and Khalil Kain- play minor roles with no real character development (not as if the women had any either). But I am happy Perry kept Shange’s work as a story of colored girls without the men’s presence overshadowing the women.

As the film climaxes it is oftentimes predictable, but it flows in leading to the end where all the women are on the rooftop professing:

My love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face

My love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face

My love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face

My love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face

My love is too magic to have thrown back on my face

“For Colored Girls” is tied neck and neck with “The Family that Preys” as his best film to date. And he owes the success of this adaptation to the all-star cast. The acting was phenomenal. By far the performances of Kimberly Elise- the mother of two children, girlfriend of a deranged Veteran (Michael Ealy), and Thandie Newton- the sex craved heartless woman who slept with men as a result of the emptiness she felt inside were the best performances I’ve seen in a film in a long time.

Such strong actresses speaking Shange’s monologues were a major part of what made this film beautiful. The language combined with modern scenarios conveying the tragedies colored girls face daily is most likely to touch any woman deep down in her soul.

My critique of Perry is the moments in which his poor screenwriting and directing skills translated into awkward moments on screen and via the audience’s reaction.

Perry’s stereotypical approach to the downlow brother was so predictable. And upsetting. I wasn’t mad that Janet Jackson contracted HIV from her husband, rather that Perry played into the stereotype that HIV is a homosexual disease. As if the millions of black women with HIV all contracted it from a downlow man. He also left his audience to wonder. When he revealed  Kerry Washington’s infertility as a result of an untreated STD I sighed another heavy sigh. What was the STD? Again, Perry is pandering to stereotypes and spreading misinformation.

All in all Perry did the best he could as a man directing a story written by and for black women. The acting and use of the original monologue carried the film in its entirety.

After the movie I needed a moment to process my thoughts because I was unsure of how I felt about Perry creating such tragic circumstances (some from the choreopoem, others he scripted), for the all black female characters. I didn’t want non-blacks to walk away thinking we all have such tragic lives. But this film is not about them; it’s about us, for once.

For all my colored girls who have suffered from the pains of rape, molestation, abortion, a broken heart, infidelity, infertility, depression, physical abuse, loss of a child, and have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, this story is for you.

 

Comments 9

  1. I thought the movie was decent too. The monologues translated well and the characters really played their parts. You forgot my fav actress though, Thandie Newton. She did the best! I can’t believe you didn’t mention her. I really fell in love w/ her character and storyline. She played the part well. I’m glad she landed the role.

    At times I did look at the movie and was like uh.. But then other parts I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I just hope ppl go see the movie and not be discouraged by Tyler. That’s my biggest concern! From what I heard its doing well.

  2. Bene, I called the Bloomington Theater and it will be playing this weekend. After my viewing, I will give you my thoughts. Nice article!

  3. I could only take this movie as what it was –a horror movie. Okay, on to the next one. Hopefully we've got these misery fests out of our systems for a while.

  4. Wow… Let me start by saying that I find you to be a refreshingly talented writer and journalist. However, "Ward, I think you're being a bit hard on the Beaver."

    It troubles me that we find ourselves so overcritical of "us" who have elevated themselves to a platform that allows "us" to have a voice. It's been months since I've seen For Colored Girls and now Tyler Perry has released yet another Madea movie. I found myself critical of this overdone character but realized that Madea funds For Colored Girls… and that's okay with me. I found a bit of hypocrisy in your poignant critic of Mr. Perry and his audience for that matter ("Opening night I sat in a packed theater of folks who I’m certain had never heard of Ntozake Shange,…") What a truly disturbing implication.

    I read the book and saw the stage play several times and I don't believe anyone (including Ntozake Shange could have adapted her poem to film and capture the same elegance and passion as the book or the plays. It wasn't designed for screen; it wasn't designed for a medium that removes the element of imagination.

    Personally, I think Mr. Perry did a phenomenal telling a story that should entice moviegoers to leave the theater and head straight to Barnes and Nobles or Amazon! This indictment on Tyler Perry's reintroduction of such an important piece of literature to the mainstream is not only unfair, it's a bit embarrassing. We stay true to form when over criticize one another. We, those proverbial crabs in a bucket, discuss everything from questioning the man's sexuality to his choice of actresses. Where do we acquire such nerve?

    For Colored Girls is a project that was larger than life when it was written, much like Alice Walker's Color Purple. Why didn't we have such an enormous outcry when Steven Speilberg made the decision to tackle this literary gem? Was there an assumption that most of the people who sat in movie theaters for three hours had no idea who is Alice Walker was back in '85?

    Maybe I'm a bit naive but I truly believe that we need to spend a little more time celebrating the boldness of this successful black man and relax a bit with the hate. What he lacks in talent he truly makes up for in sheer boldness.

    Just my two Lincolns…

    1. Post is called “reflections on…” And that’s just what it is. I wrote this months ago, and normally would not respond. But I need to correct you on a few facts. Yes, the people in front of me had never heard of Ntzoake. When explaining to their friends who had never seen the previews they described it verbatim, “It’s like Waiting to Exhale with Tyler Perry.” Further, they were clueless when the poems were being recited as to what was going on. “What the hell, that sounds like a poem.” So I’m not making sweeping generalizations. I’m speaking facts.

      It’s one thing for you to have liked the film & disagree with my reflections. It’s another to be disrespectful, and tell me I can’t criticize something. I’m not of the belief that because a screenwriter, producer, actor, writer, etc. is Black that means they are above critique. The bottom line is- Tyler Perry’s works need improvement. And the ones with Madea are coonery. That is not the image that we constantly need to see in film when there are no other images to counter that. TP has major issues with Black women, which is crystal clear through his depictions of us. If she is not some helpless downtrodden woman, she is the uber successful emasculating “bitch.” I have issues with that. He needs to work that out through therapy & stop portraying Black women in such negative light. Any man who has been molested & has a platform to touch on that through his male characters, but doesn’t, and chooses to create caricatures of Black women instead, I have a problem with that.

      Besides his coonish and stereotypical depictions, his storylines are trite, the writing is blah, and I could go on. But there are TP works I like- Family that Prays. Doesn’t mean it is without critique. Am I happy for his success? Absolutely. Does he need to evolve as a director & screenwriter? Absolutely.

      Criticism is not always bad. Obviously TP has a targeted demographic & his formulaic methods work for them. I’m not knocking that or his audience. But you can’t make me like it.

      He should have never touched “For Colored Girls.” So far out of his lane.

  5. being very familiar with the book which is identical to the play, i chose not to see the film. i had the opportunity to perform in ‘for colored girls’ many years ago and it is best left on the stage to be appreciated for the masterpiece that it is. from your excellent description, Tyler Perry has mangled and manipulated this work down to the lowest common denominator and made it very ghetto-friendly…he does not have my support in this. ‘colored girls’ is an abstract work that can be interpreted many ways, but his fails epically. but at least Madea wasn’t in the mix…

  6. Surprisingly you only pic Perry films to critique so harshly.  Your writing is obviously too biased to be taken seriously.

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